Academic journal article ARIEL

"The Right Woman in the Right Place": Mary Seacole and Corrective Histories of Empire

Academic journal article ARIEL

"The Right Woman in the Right Place": Mary Seacole and Corrective Histories of Empire

Article excerpt

A 2010 segment of the popular BBC series Horrible Histories is located in the offices of Cliff Whitelie, historical public relations agent ("Series 2, Episode 6"). His mission, in this "Vile Victorians"-themed sketch, is presented in the form of two figures: Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole. Their pairing is a modern-day fable of multicultural inclusion, particularly of what I term corrective histories, or those representations of historical figures of blackness meant to engage, recover, and repair past racial injury. Seacole, as she writes in her memoir Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, becomes again and again "the right woman in the right place" for such cultural labor (80).

Famous in the ranks of British soldiers and the press during the Crimean War, Seacole was extraordinarily well-traveled as an entrepreneur-nurse who worked in the Caribbean, Central America, Eastern Europe, and the United Kingdom, as she documents in her 1857 memoir. Nightingale was, then and now, her foil: the middle-class British white woman who institutionalized modern nursing practices. Nightingale became a national and global icon of the profession; Seacole went from British Victorian celebrity to a century of disappearance, only to be resurrected in our contemporary moment as a heroine of multiculturalism as much for her accomplishments as for her racist snubbing by Nightingale and her eventual triumph in becoming a famous nurse and celebrity of the Crimean War. In the Horrible Histories episode, that triumph is rehearsed and replotted as an act of good publicity: it counters Nightingale's racism in the contemporary moment of multiculturalism to earn Seacole her rightful place in the historical record and public imagination. Seacole, in short, becomes a celebrity in the current moment, where her celebrity is to be read as a sign of racial progress and a correction of the racist silence that omitted her from history heretofore. But her celebrity status as one of the few black women whose self-written record endured this period of empire and as one of the only black women recognized by the British state during the era also lends critical suspicion to her archive for contemporary black postcolonial studies scholars. "Correcting" Seacole's place in history redeploys Seacole in the service of several competing narratives of national, postcolonial, and racial belonging, as well as antiracist political and intellectual discourse. This article traces these reanimated histories of Seacole in order to suggest the current limits and future possibilities of reimagining empire through the subjectivity of black women. This cynical assessment of how we produce corrective histories in the public sphere also elucidates the limitations of using Seacole as a symbolic figure, since her history and memoir cannot be held to traditional gendered narratives of racial and national heroism.

Mary Jane Grant Seacole was a mixed-race Jamaican nurse and sutler (a hotelier/general store keeper on the war front, for an inexact translation) born in 1805 who served soldiers in the Crimean War as well as in New Granada, Panama, and her native Jamaica. Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands traces Seacole's travels as an exciting lure and as the basis for Seacole's inclusion in British historiography. The memoir has gone from a popular text in its own time to general obscurity, only to be reprinted and commemorated within the national histories of Britain and Jamaica (and in academic circles) in recent years. Told partially in the genre of a travel narrative and partially as a celebrity war memoir (of the Crimean War, fought against Russia from 1853 to 1856), (1) the volume sold out its first print run in its day. Upon its 1984, 1988, and 2005 reprints (the last of which is the edition that is cited throughout), critics tend to both marvel at Seacole's position as a well-known, respected colonial subject who was able to write her own version of her life apart from any connection to political movements and note the difficult affiliations with the British nation and empire required to achieve this position as a "global citizen," in the words of Cheryl Fish (15). …

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